Learned By Heart by Emma Donoghue

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Learned By Heart, Emma Donoghue’s latest novel, is a heartbreaking account of Eliza Raine, possibly the first love of the famed lesbian, Anne Lister, and her tragic life which ensued.

It is a beautifully reconstructed tale of boarding school life at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which provides a background to the setting – the stunning historical city of York and a glimpse of the customs and mores in northern England at that point.  The social hierarchies of outside society are mirrored within the walls of Miss Hargrave’s Manor School and to counter the strict rules and looming punishments, the girls devise games like ‘Squeak, Piggy, Squeak,’ and ‘Here I Bake’. Excursions, lessons, meals….almost every aspect of their routine is meticulously presented. I found this both diverting and enjoyable.

With the steady rhythm of their lives framing the everyday, the intensity and joy experienced in The Slope, the attic where Eliza and Anne sleep, is a scene where all meaning for Eliza shrinks to become the action in that space.

Eliza, born in India of an English father and Indian mother, at age 6 was sent to England to be fostered and educated. At 14, she arrived at the Manor School and soon after, Lister came to share the small room, isolated at the top of the house.

Very soon she is drawn to the charismatic Lister, ‘the doer, the writer, the darer’. Anne Lister’s uncompromising boldness leads Eliza to question many aspects of their lives.  She was quiet, insecure, and unhappy with few memories of her family to comfort her in her loneliness. By the time she is joined by Anne she is an orphan too.

The admiration and shock that Lister engendered initially, blossomed into an intensely passionate relationship.

Emma Donoghue here displays that talent for vividly creating a concentrated microcosm of an experience in a beautifully powerful way. A reader shares the thrills of the emotions that sweep through a young girl, besotted with her friend and lover.

Other books, The Room and The Pull of Stars, are fine examples too, of lives lived in the confines of a limited space. In the latter, it was the maternity ward of a Dublin hospital.

The writer’s skill is constant, at times poetic, in its imagery.

‘What’s between them’, thinks Eliza, ‘grows like a creeper that covers the bricks and drainpipes in living green’.   She introduces ‘cloudfaller’ and ‘ colts in the woods’ as the terms used to refer to ‘illegitimate’ babies.

The course of the relationship in the book is interrupted by letters from Eliza to Anne at regular intervals. She is distraught by their separation and Anne’s attraction to other women; whereby she remains totally absorbed by her obsession with Lister.  As the book progresses, it becomes obvious that she writes from an Asylum. Hers is a sad and tragic fate.

Anne Lister’s story is a significant section of history – particularly Lesbian history. She went on after leaving school to have a life frowned upon by many, with a string of lovers. She is supposed to be the first to celebrate a lesbian marriage in a church in 1834. Some maintain it was the first in the world.

Eliza is the central character who lives and suffers so intensely. Their liaison lasted merely a year yet its impact is profound. Her letters at times are bitter and angry but ultimately, she is crippled by an overwhelming longing.

Learned By Heart is an unforgettable testament to that first love, which for many proves to be forever unmatched later in life….

Learned By Heart


by Emma Donoghue


ISBN 978 103501 777 5

$34.99; 324pp

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